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Nelson Atkins Museum (1999)

Kansas City, United States of America
1 of 14

Architect Steven Holl won an international competition in 1999 for the design of the addition. His design was a daring and unexpected solution to the Museum's needs, balancing innovation with respect for the beloved Nelson-Atkins neoclassical building.

The Bloch building houses the museum's contemporary, African, photography, and special exhibitions galleries as well a new cafe, the museum's reference library, and the Isamu Noguchi Sculpture Court. The addition cost approximately $95 million and opened June 9, 2007. It was part of $200 million in renovations to the museum that included the Ford Learning Center which is home to classes, workshops, and resources for students and educators and opened in fall of 2005.


When six architects were selected as finalists for the Nelson-Atkins expansion project for the Museum of Art in Kansas City, Steven Holl Architects presented a design that ran along the east side of the Museum, tumbling into the Kansas City Sculpture Park and incorporating landscape and light as key elements in his overall plan. Rather than block the grand north facade of the original building, Holl's design found its own space along the gently sloping eastern edge of the Museum's 22-acre campus.


Holl's concept was to build five glass towers to the east of the original building which he calls lenses. The lenses they top a 15,300 m2 underground building known as the Bloch Building. It is named for H&R Block co-founder Henry W. Bloch.

In the competition to design the addition, all the entrants except Holl proposed creating a modern addition on the north side of the museum which would have drastically altered or obscured the north facade which served as the main entrance to the museum.

However Holl proposed placing the addition on the east side perpendicular to the main building. Holl's lenses now march down the east perimeter of the grounds.While still on the drawing boards, Holl's plan met with considerable controversy.

The threaded movement between the light-gathering lenses of the new addition weaves the new building with the landscape in a fluid dynamism based on a sensitive relationship to its context. Rather than an addition of a mass, the new elements exist in complementary contrast with the original 1933 classical "Temple to Art":

  • Original Building New (in Complementary Contrast)
  • Opaque Transparent
  • Heavy Light
  • Hermetic Meshing
  • Inward views Views to landscape
  • Bounded Unbounded
  • Directed Circulation Open Circulation
  • Single Mass Transparent lenses


The first of the five "lenses" forms a bright and transparent lobby, with cafe, art library and bookstore, inviting the public into the Museum and encouraging movement via ramps toward the galleries as they progress downward into the garden. From the lobby a new cross-axis connects through to the original building's grand spaces. At night the glowing glass volume of the lobby provides an inviting transparency, drawing visitors to events and activities. The lenses' multiple layers of translucent glass gather, diffuse and refract light, at times materializing light like blocks of ice. During the day the lenses inject varying qualities of light into the galleries, while at night the sculpture garden glows with their internal light. The "meandering path" threaded between the lenses in the Sculpture Park has its sinuous complement in the open flow through the continuous level of galleries below. The galleries, organized in sequence to support the progression of the collections, gradually step down into the Park, and are punctuated by views into the landscape.

The design for the new addition utilizes sustainable building concepts; the sculpture garden continues up and over the gallery roofs, creating sculpture courts between the lenses, while also providing green roofs to achieve high insulation and control storm water. At the heart of the addition's lenses is a structural concept merged with a light and air distributor concept: "Breathing T's" transport light down into the galleries along their curved undersides while carrying the glass in suspension and providing a location for HVAC ducts. The double-glass cavities of the lenses gather sun-heated air in winter or exhaust it in summer. Optimum light levels for all types of art or media installations and seasonal flexibility requirements are ensured through the use of computer-controlled screens and of special translucent insulating material embedded in the glass cavities. A continuous service level basement below the galleries offers art delivery, storage and handling spaces, as well as flexible access to the "Breathing-Ts".

Art and Architecture

The ingenious integration of art and architecture included a collaborative effort with artist Walter De Maria, one of the great minimalist artists of our time. De Maria's sculpture, One Sun /34 Moons, is the centerpiece of the expansive granite-paved entrance plaza with a reflecting pool that forms a new entry space shaped by the existing building and the new Lobby "Lens". The "moons" of the art work are circular skylight discs in the bottom of the pool that project water-refracted light into the garage below. Conceived as a vehicular Arrival Hall, the garage is generously proportioned, directly connected to the new museum lobby on both levels, and spanned with continuous undulating vaults by an innovative pre-cast concrete 'wave-T'.

The museum has gone against traditional conservatorial thinking in allowing natural light from the lenses to illuminate its art work. Most of the exhibits in the addition are below ground with about 10 m glass towers above them. Officials say that advances in glass technology have allowed them to block most of the harmful ultraviolet rays that could damage the exhibited works.

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  1. Wikipedia
  2. Archdaily
roberts, November 14th, 2011
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